Beetle on grass blade, near Otford, Kent, England, May 2015
I am walking the North Downs Way back to front, upside down and inside out. This beetle was doing its best to remain on a blade of grass at the side of the path near to the village of Otford. It succeeded. I am struggling to identify it.
Please click through to see more pictures of the North Downs Way on Flickr.
I sit on a path new and slight, pressed into the grasses. Last year I sat in a spot close by under the shade of ash trees watching a willow warbler make return visits to a nest down in the brambles. Now the brink of a small copse of trees has gone, the bird, perhaps returning, may have decided this was no longer a place to raise young. In the absence of willow warblers, brimstone butterflies, perhaps reaching double figures, mark the new space of downland that has been reopened from the folds of trees. The piles of logs and branches stacked in the iron beds are still here, yet to be burned or hedged. I like that slowness, that I can come back some months later and no one has felt too pushed to tidy the place up.
A male and female brimstone fly together and then fall down amongst the twigs and low, woody brambles. I’m interested to see what they’re doing so I get up and have a look. They’re mating, bodies bent round, facing away from each other. They part. High in the sky, against the blue and its herring and lesser black-backed gulls circling on thermals, a huge flock. I wonder why, I wonder what for. Down here with me the female brimstone is again on the wing, met by a band of battling males. They pass her and are turned immediately onto her, each forgetting their quarrel and targeting the paler female. This is the perfect reflection of the adult butterfly’s life: the males seek as many females as they can; the female, having mated, defends herself from latecomers as she strives to find the right plant for egg-laying. The males attack her, but she breaks free, up into the sky. She is not free of them. The four males cloud her, their colours so close as they gain height that all sense of defence has disappeared into a neon waltz. They go up, up and over my head to the world of gulls and warm air rising.
On the Downs the butterflies are immediately evident, the week old broods of meadow brown ferry amongst the long grasses, rarely stopping to feed on flowers. Breeding season is ending but still the song of skylarks comes from over the slope, some ancient language remembered, its translation lost. Greater yellow rattle blooms now, the spring buttercups lost to a swathe of Yorkshire fog and other grasses I don’t know. The suntan lotion on my arms acts as an adhesive, my skin covered with seeds. The grasshoppers are conjuring up their rickety, wooden percussion. I am hopeless in finding them, except for one that hops between seed heads, a micro Tarzan in this meadow jungle. But where are the people? A man drives a BMW sports car along the lane, revving its engine. I know where I’d rather be. Men in England are bare chested at the slightest chance and here a couple stroll along the lane drinking from big bottles of water. The tattoo stamped on the man’s back stands out in this simple landscape of slopes and flowers.
Ghostly day-flying moths spread at my every step through the long grass. Bumblebees forage on clovers, dropwort and yellow rattle, small heath butterflies appear again, two fly together, eager to fulfil their short lives with as much fornication as is possible. I cut back on to the path I know best. A chiffchaff sings in the hedgeline at the bottom of the hill, a single blackbird and a whitethroat, too. There’s no sign of spring’s willow warblers or their clutch of young. A crowd of peacock caterpillars munch through nettle leaves, leaving only the dreadlocks of flowers. A yellowhammer appears from across the lane, landing in a small hawthorn bush, its strong yellow plumage brighter than dandelions, a South American yellow, and at its brightest here. I take a few photos. Along with skylarks, this is a bird I have to travel to see, when once, before my time, you might have woken to it flocking in the hedges and fields.
Leaving the Downs I enter the chalky wooded hollows at the bottom of the slope, with tor grass growing along the track, an indicator of the calcareous soil. My sweat cools with the breeze that slips through here. In the dappled shade I scan the path edges for orchids, black bryony creeping out from the darkened hedges. And there it is: the fly orchid. I change lenses and struggle to get the image right, sweat dripping, bringing lotion down my face. But it’s beautiful to look at – a bit like a bumblebee pinned and proffered by the long spike, with its little eyes and short antennae. A family are passing behind the hedge, discussing how to control the dog.
‘She’s pulling me down into these weird places,’ says the mother.
‘Just let her off the lead, let her off the lead,’ the dad says.
They arrive on the path heading down hill. Their daughter warns the dog to stay with them. I only see the mother, she’s dressed in an apricot coloured dress and heeled shoes. She’s young and glamorous, so fitting with the array of flowers bursting from the hillside.
‘Who needs Box Hill when you can come here, eh?’ says the dad. They disappear down towards Happy Valley.
I carry on along the ridge and settle on the desire line drawn down the hill and through the flowers. Ringlets move through the meadow, the first I’ve seen this year. They move at the same time and, stitched together, they are a tapestry of flickering wings. In my silence and stillness wildlife begins to move around me, perhaps more trusting. I see more plants now: twayblades, common spotted orchid, salad burnet, marjoram, ox eye daisy, rough hawkbit and bladder campion with its inflated, balloon like calyx-tubes. The wind blows through the trees. A speckled wood butterfly flaps about me, its wings audible as it hits my khaki shorts and leaf stalks. It clasps hold of a spear-like grass stem and curves its abdomen, laying a tiny pearl of an egg. This, for me, is something new.
Stepping on to the Downs, a marked change has taken place in the two weeks since I’ve been here. The grass has lost its wintry edge and there grows a profusion of meadow buttercups. On the woody margins white butterflies steer themselves through the day, the slight of a cool breeze will no doubt register with them. A man is sitting on a bench taking pronounced drags from a spliff. I imagine ushering him to the gate as does someone wanting to be in a room alone. What is that link with landscape and human solitude.
A holly blue flutters about in a restless fashion, unwilling to perch, itself ushering me away, perhaps. I take the hint. The jackdaws are still here, so faithful to this place, much more so than me. This is why wildlife is so deserving of the land, perhaps more so than we. It doesn’t have a choice. Last time I watched them in a snowy sky but now they move through the ankle high wildflowers like shadows. They call out and burst free into the air when I enter into their field of vision.
I walk into the scrubby chunk of woodland that the path cuts through. I am struck by the change, the green, the lividness of the living. A woody, leafless hawthorn reminds me that both states remain all year round. Chiffchaffs are calling to each other up ahead, followed by the only slightly different voice of a willow warbler, a bird almost identical to the others. I sit in the shade on the edge of the path and listen. A willow warbler appears from the bush and lands on the branch of a young hazel tree. It has some insects in its bill and it whistles incessantly, huuu-eet. I take a picture and sit still. After a short wait a green woodpecker yaffles and the willow warbler dives into the long grass and bramble. Two weeks ago this bird did the same but without food in its bill. Now it’s feeding silent young down there in the thorns and tussocks. A couple pass me where I sit.
‘Are you looking for a lesser spotted whatever-it-is?’ the lady asks.
I explain the situation, pleased they don’t think I’m up to no good. Her partner turns to me: ‘I know you.’
‘And I know you.’
We remind ourselves of when and where from. We both agree things have improved since then. They leave happily, I get up and carry on through Farthing Downs.
The year’s first brood of small heath butterflies have hatched on the Downs. A pair rest on separate patches of bare soil created by livestock, conducting the heat of the sun. They live as adults for as little as seven days and I admire their freedom, their lolling and landing, they circle me, perhaps jittery when I move but not much bothered. They are orange smudges against the green downland. I sit with them. A soldier beetle clambers up a blade of grass and wrestles with its own weight, a clumsy, dim creature, it straddles the seed head, whirs its antennae and unleashes its wings from its black backpack, struggling into the air.
I’m sitting out on the terrace of the pensione, complaining aloud in the full sun. Last night I’d peered over the ledge at the lemon and olive trees, the tiled terraces and bright white roofs. The faint voice of a thrush had caught my ear, and the familiar dark, scuttling figure of a blackbird darted across a building about twenty-five-feet below. But there was something unusual about the blackbird. The light was low and so darker tones fell to black. However, this was not a wholly black bird and I entertained the thought – could it be a blue rock thrush? I was unprepared for it, so unrefined is my knowledge of anything non-British and unfamiliar. From the viewpoint of our pensione, the houses, hotels, gardens and restaurants, immaculately packed together, are built like steps to the sky with the sweeping curve of the only road in the town cutting through them, linking Positano to Naples and Sorrento to the north and Amalfi in the south. Above all this stands dry, steep and rocky mountains with deep green woodlands below the peaks. Helicopters are taking turns to pour water from the ocean onto a forest fire that has erupted in the southern peaks. It has been going on all night, the choppers roaring, their sound unbearably loud in this mid-30 degree heat. On the terrace I watch the heat rise as the morning nears noon, the choppers ferrying water from ocean to mountain. From beneath me a butterfly emerges, and it’s the beast of European butterflies, the swallowtail, flitting between the railings like a twenty-pound note.
Having had the shadow of a swallowtail pass over me, down into the depths of the gardens where the mystery bird had scampered, I decide to investigate its flight path. I’m here for my uncle’s wedding. It’s a big family holiday and so I have relatives scattered around all corners of the town. Had they all been ornithologists or lepidopterists things might be easier for me. There’s the rumour of a path or set of stairs that runs for nearly half a mile from our pensione down to the beach. My uncle, the groom, tried it and nearly died, apparently. My sister, fresh from travels in India, walked it the other day and says there are ‘loads of butterflies’. She mentioned colours which don’t even appear in my rubbish field guide. The image in my mind is of clouds of blues dancing amid the nu-rave hue of Mediterranean wildflowers.
The temperature touches 35 degrees by 2 or 3pm, and so it becomes a time of hibernation. It feels too hot even to think, to speak. The steps down to the beach, some 400 or so, begin by a chapel outside the pensione. A black priest enters through the old wooden doors, sending an SMS with his mobile as he walks, never looking up. The stairs aren’t uniform, they dip and swerve, the height of an individual slab varying and inducing vertiginous feelings. Streaming between old, old walls the path echoes with the slap of thin, rubbery footwear and suddenly a burst of pink lanterns, bougainvillea flowers which are so evident, climbing across the blistering walls of Positano. It’s September so some are turning to seed, they appear tea-stained. The stairs descend past the front doors of people’s houses and iron gates which offer tantalising visions of Italian ornamental gardens. On the rough surface of the waist high walls either side, lizards rest and escape. They give themselves away quite easily – the sound of brittle leaves dislodged in the cavity of a wall, by neither wind nor gravity. Ants channel the iron handrails. The sun is so hot and so high, my legs tremble when I look up.
The steps snake round and flatten into a slope, I sit down in the shade of an olive tree and waft my hat about my face. A woman and a young man, probably her son, are climbing up the steps. She is visibly sweating, I smile at her and attempt a universal gesture for overheating. She’s a typical Italian mama, portly with dark hair and a cloth dress. She’s out of breath and looks at me like the stranger that I am. A man is watering his garden behind the iron railings. I sit and wait for butterflies. The olive trees pool at their bases, as if they’ve been melted by the sun. The larger oliver groves have nets tied around their trunks, ready to be rolled out in season to catch the falling fruit. It’s not time yet. In the sun of the path’s slope, a lemon tree dangles over from a garden, plump with yellow fruits. Great umbrellas of fennel grow on the perilous bank beyond the wall and a white butterfly lands to feed on one plant. I photograph it and zoom in on the crop. Positano is home to white butterflies as London is to pigeons, mostly the small white, Europe’s most common butterfly. The one I’ve pictured isn’t a small white, however. It has dark markings on the wings, a little like a marbled white, but more like a bath white. In my head I swiftly establish this perilous walkway as Positano’s first wildlife conservation area. Peering over the wall at the olives and dry grasses, there is the usual sign of plastic bottles and bags discarded. This, however, doesn’t compare with the crap around Naples airport.
The heat is getting too much for me, I glance at the steep steps back up to the hotel. I let in the murmurings of hot panic. From the lemon tree garden the gigantic shape of a swallowtail soars down onto the path and over the wall, just like it passed over our terrace. I rush out to try and get a photo but it’s too quick and I’m too far from it. Against the rocky wall a brimstone glides, a flash of orange on its outer wing. This is no normal brimstone. I look at my field guide. It’s Cleopatra’s. The sun pulsates. I dive back into the shade. The Mediterranean glimmers blue in between the olive branches holding ripening fruits, Tunisia and Algeria beyond the horizon. People have been passing me, comfortable with the sun rays, on their way down to the beach. It’s 1:30pm, the hottest part of the day. I guzzle from my water bottle and make my way back up the steps to hide.